Debut novelist Mira Jacob takes readers on a journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom in The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.
Celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen has been sitting on his porch, talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a photographer living in Seattle.
Reluctantly Amina returns home and finds a situation that is far more complicated than her mother let on, with roots in a trip the family, including Amina’s rebellious brother Akhil, took to India twenty years earlier. Confronted by Thomas’s unwillingness to explain himself, strange looks from the hospital staff, and a series of puzzling items buried in her mother’s garden, Amina soon realizes that the only way she can help her father is by coming to terms with her family’s painful past. In doing so, she must reckon with the ghosts that haunt all of the Eapens.
Excerpted from THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING by Mira Jacob. Copyright © 2014 by Mira Jacob. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
PROLOGUE: A CHOSEN MADNESS
SEATTLE, JUNE 1998
It was a fever, a hot rage of words. For three nights in a row Thomas Eapen sat on the porch, one side of a furious conversation rolling over his tongue to spill out the window screen. The neighbors heard him; his wife, Kamala, could not sleep. Prince Philip, their aging and arthritic Labrador, had taken to pacing the hallway and whining. Kamala told her daughter all of this over the phone one early June evening, her voice as smooth as a newscaster’s.
“I am thinking he’s on his way out,” Kamala concluded, and Amina pictured her father at the edge of the desert, waiting for a bus.
“Who knows. My judgment is impairing. I haven’t slept since Saturday.”
“Not kidding,” sniff ed Kamala, whose ability to sleep through anything that her insomniac husband could cook up (raccoon hunts, ditch fires, tractor mishaps) had long been a point of pride. Amina dropped her keys onto the kitchen counter.
“You are just now home from work?” Kamala asked.
“Yes.” Amina placed her mail and camera next to the keys. The answering machine blinked anxiously at her. She turned her back to it.
“Three nights? Seriously?”
“Busy. Everyone in Seattle is getting married in the next month.”
Amina ignored her. “What do you mean talking? Talking about what?”
“What kind of stories?”
“What kind of anything? Fits and nuts and now this man with his idiot yak-yak all the time!” Kamala said. “I told him his tongue would fall out and rot like a vegetable, and still he wouldn’t shut up.”
“You always say that.”
“No I don’t.”
“But this is different, koche,” Kamala sighed. Night noises snaked through the phone line, pressing New Mexico right up to Amina’s ear—the hushed applause of the wind rolling through the cottonwoods, the hollow scritch of crickets echoing against the mesas, the click of the gate latch in the garden. Amina shut her eyes and felt herself in the darkening yard with the tickle of the wild grass at the back of her knees.
“You out in the garden?” she asked her mother.
“Mmm-hmm. You in the rain?”
“I’m in the kitchen.” Amina checked the linoleum under her boots. Its yellow edges spoke of a former life, one in which the Crown Hill Apartments had been envisioned as good starters for middle-income families, replete with real marble fireplaces and sunny-day kitchen floors. Now they were a thin piss color, pocked with air bubbles that snapped when stepped on.
“How’s the weather?” Kamala asked.
“It’s raining a little.”
“Nobody knows why you stay there.”
“You get used to it.”
“That’s not a good reason to stay somewhere. No wonder that dirty man shot himself—all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses.”
“Kurt Cobain was a junkie, Ma.”
“Because he needed more sun!”
Amina sighed. Had she known that leaving her copy of Rolling Stone in the bathroom on her last visit would make Kamala a self-proclaimed expert on all things Seattle (“The grunges! The Starbucks! The start-ups!”), she might have been more careful, but then, it served a good-enough purpose, this disdain her mother held for Amina’s choice of residence. For one, it cut down on her visits. (“I never get warm here!” Kamala made a point of saying the few times she did come, rubbing her hands together and looking around suspiciously. Once, she told the very nice barista at Amina’s local coffee shop that he smelled funny from “too much damp.”)
“Did I tell you the mint is coming like one forest?” her mother asked now, her voice brightening. “Bigger than last year!”
“That’s great.” Amina opened her refrigerator. A collection of takeout boxes slumped together like old men in bad weather. She shut it.
“I made chutney and had the Ramakrishnas and the Kurians over last night, and they loved it! Bala wanted the recipe, of course.”
“What did you leave out?”
“Nothing. Cayenne and cilantro.”
Cooking was a talent of her mother’s that Amina often thought of as evolutionary, a way for Kamala to survive herself with friendships intact. Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.
“So, what did they think about Dad?”
“What about Dad?”
“The talking or whatever.”
“I didn’t tell them! Don’t be stupid!”
“It’s a secret?” Amina marveled. “You’re not telling the family?”
A secret between the Ramakrishnas, the Kurians, and the Eapens only happened once every five years or so, and usually came out within months anyway, the keepers assuring the kept-from that it was nothing personal, just family business, the kept-from uttering comforting words about being family in this country anyway even though no blood relation existed among them.
“No secret!” Kamala said a bit too emphatically. She tucked her voice a few notches lower. “No big deals. Let’s not bother anyone about it, okay?”
“Well, did anyone else think he was acting funny?”
“He isn’t acting funny.”
“I thought you said—”
“No, not like that. He’s going to work and all; he’s fine with everyone else. All the nurses in the OR still follow him around like gaggling geese. It’s just late at night.”
It would have to be late. Thomas did his best to stay at the hospital until sundown, and his insomnia often kept him up between midnight and 6 a.m. Those were the hours he would sit on the porch and tinker some unfathomable object—a cricket gun, a pet petter—into life.
“He’s probably just talking to the dog, Ma. He does that all the time.”
“No he’s not.”
“How do you know?”
“I just told you! The dog is stuck inside whining! And besides, I heard him.”
“He was talking to Ammachy.”
Amina stopped moving. Her grandmother had been dead for almost twenty years. “You mean praying to her?”
The sharp rip of weeds being yanked from the dirt came across the phone line with a small grunt. “No, I don’t. I mean talking. Telling stories.”
Kamala huffed. Rip, rip, grunt.